I talk a lot about compassion on this forum. I’m a big fan. Throughout my years of working in mental health, providing clinical therapy, and immersing myself in the research I’ve come to understand that compassion plays a critical role in our human lives, the way we behave, and how we feel.
Buddhists and Buddhist Psychologists define compassion as being made up of two parts- 1) empathy, being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and 2) action, extending your felt sense of empathy to do something about it. I like that. It’s a gentle but clear way of saying, “Don’t just feel for the person. Do something about it.” Feeling and action cause change.
There are as many reasons as there are people why it might be challenging to tap into our own compassion. Many of us don’t believe we hold enough power to effect anything worthwhile or sustainable. We feel beaten down, afraid, over-worked, alone, inadequate. Some of us even use denial to medicate our guilt and powerlessness by telling ourselves things like, “Oh, that group is suffering probably because they’ve done something to deserve it,” and “It’s probably not really that bad. Besides, I’ve got my own problems to worry about.”
If I cut myself off from feeling empathy because it is accompanied by feelings of sadness and guilt, it means that I am out of integrity with myself. If I am out of integrity with myself, that means I invite a whole treasure trove of other hard-to-feel feelings- blame, anger and of course more sadness and guilt. I’ll experience blame and anger because, in the short term, it is easier to get angry and blame someone who is suffering than to feel powerless to help them. It is easier to look down from my high horse on someone who is suffering and have the gall to find a reason as to why their suffering is their fault. This propensity is in all of us. We have all been in situations where we have seen suffering and not extended ourselves. We have all been in situations where we have witnessed injustice and not intervened.
In their book, Mindful Compassion, Paul Gilbert and Choden reflect that “Perhaps one of the greatest enemies of compassion is conformity; a preparedness to go along with the way things are, sometimes out of fear, sometimes complacency, and sometimes because we do what our leaders tell us what to do.” It’s hard to act compassionately, especially when our first instinct is to protect ourselves.
There are times when it is easier for us to feel compassion for others and times when it is easier to feel self-compassion. In those moments when we feel more challenged by finding compassion for others, a good way to jump start it is to practice self-compassion:
1) We can identify our feelings and try to define the experience we’re having.
2) We can accept our feelings and the experience we are having.
3) We can acknowledge what connects all beings- the desire to be free, happy, and loved.
4) We can acknowledge compassion that has been extended to us.
Like almost everything else, this is about perpetuating patterns. What we practice will continue. What our brains practice will help strengthen those neural pathways creating our neural circuitry.
“Until he extends his circle of compassion to include all living things, man will not himself find peace.” (Albert Schweitzer)
Love and Be Loved,